August 23, 2017: The GREAT American Eclipse!

It’s hard to find words to describe the eclipse.  The overused “awesome” barely cuts it, but for once, it is correct – the eclipse truly did inspire awe – and not the “awwww” kind, either.  “Glorious” is better; but I think “WOW!” pretty much says it all.  It was insane.  And as Ron Hranac, the President of the Denver Astronomical Society, so aptly put it, “No matter how many minutes totality lasts, it always goes by in eight seconds.”  Truer words were never spoken.


Eclipse preliminaries

I travelled up to Glendo State Park, Wyoming to see the eclipse.  Glendo is a straight shot on I-25 about 210 miles north of Denver, a trip of less than three hours.  In addition to seeing the eclipse, I also got to do something fun that I had never done before – stargaze from inside my tent.

My tent and scope setup.  Note the huge windows on all four sides of the tent.  That’s my Mak and ‘frac on the left.  The white is a towel to see the “snakes”, but they were busy elsewhere.

I bought this tent a good dozen years ago or so.  I remember one of the selling points at the time was that if you set it up without the rainfly, “you could sleep under the stars”.  Well, I slept under them alright, because the forecast for Sunday night was clear and relatively warm (low 50s).  Before falling asleep, and each time I woke during the night, I stargazed with my Mark 1 eyeballs for a while, comfortably lying flat on my back on my mattress and pillow.  I highly recommend doing this.

Yes, I’m sure the “no-see-um” mesh of the tent windows probably cuts back a little on the amount of light coming through, but it is well worth it to stargaze in absolute comfort, which makes it incredibly fun.  I could easily see the Milky Way, as well as Andromeda and the Pleiades later in the night.  I’m pretty sure I was just able to make out M33 as well, as there was a fuzz patch right where it’s supposed to be, exactly on the opposite side of Mirfak from M31.

I know you’ve all seen hundreds of eclipse pictures by now, but hey, it’s my blog!  This blog is partly for you, but it’s also partly just for me, to record my various astronomical escapades.  So, without further ado, my experience of The Great American Eclipse!

Well, maybe you haven’t seen the photo at the top of the blog.  That one is the Astronomy Picture of the Day from NASA.  It’s a composite of a couple dozen stacked photos.  Look closely – yes, you can see the surface of the moon!  Because when the moon is new, the earth is full, and the moon reflects the earthshine back down to the earth.

Glendo State Park was packed.  PACKED.  Cars, campers, and tents, as far as the eye can see.  And plenty of telescopes.  Somehow, the Colorado Springs Astronomy Society jumped ahead of the DAS in terms of being the official astronomy group present at the park, so the DAS was actually there under the auspices of the CSAS.  It seems like every CSAS member was present, and with their scopes.  DAS had about ten people present, but we were also all armed with our scopes.  It was like the Woodstock for nerds, man!  Except it’s illegal in Wyoming, dude.

There were literally thousands of people present in the park for the event, the vast majority of them having camped out for at least one or two nights before.  And the tiny little town of Glendo only has 205 people!  I heard that one of the CSAS members was from Australia.  He had joined the club just so he could fly up and see the eclipse with us!

Colorado Springs Astronomy Club in Glendo
Part of the scene near where I was camped out, in Glendo State Park.

Right next to me was a CSAS member, Bob, who had just bought his scope, an older C8.  He wanted to know how to use the NexStar handset, so it was easy enough for me to help him out and get him going with that; I also lent him one of my little powerpack batteries for him to try out.  He definitely liked it.  While there were plenty of white light solar scopes, there were also some H-alpha scopes as well.  I didn’t really want to look through too many of the H-alphas, because I didn’t want to “spoil” myself for seeing stuff when totality occurred.

I was also able to check out the performance of one of my lusted after scopes, the Explore Scientific AR 152.  Well, the solar performance, at least, anyway.  Dale, a DAS member, had brought his up, and he had a Lunt Herschel wedge attached to it.  A Herschel wedge is a heatsink that attaches to the back of the scope, as opposed to a solar filter that attaches to the front.  This means that all the light and heat from the sun passes through the objective, only to hit the wedge (which is also a diagonal) and get “rejected” by it – the heat gets passed out the back.  It’s quite a bit more expensive than solar filter – about $200 vs. $30.  But it’s supposed to let you see more detail in white light than solar film.

It gave a gorgeous image.  Dale had plenty of filters to choose from to enhance the image.  One was a longpass 495 nm filter; this eliminates a lot of the chromatic aberration that the achromatic refractor (the AR in AR 152) throws up, while also making the sun a pleasing yellow color.  Eliminating the CA definitely sharpened things up.

There were two sets of sunspots visible, Active Region 2671 – which was pretty close to the center, and looked a little like Hawaii – and AR 2672 – which was smaller and just coming around into view, at 4 o’clock on the sun’s face.  Their presence was a huge plus, because sunspot activity has been decidedly at a minimum for quite a while now.  Without sunspots, there’s nothing to get a good focus on for when the corona comes out.

Faculae (lighter, web-like areas) were easily visible around AR 2672, close to the limb.  We used my 12.5mm ortho to get the magnification up to 79x, and the view was very nice, indeed.  We then used another DAS member’s 10mm TeleVue Radian (Ed), a nice honey of an eyepiece with extra field of view and comfortable eye relief, to get the power up to 99x.  The seeing was very good, and although the image didn’t break up with the additional magnification, it somehow looked a little sharper in the 12.5mm than the 10mm.

My Mak was no slouch, though.  Even using my 32mm Plossl and my cheap Baader film solar filter, I could see the faculae easily as well at 48x.  The viewing conditions were excellent – perfectly clear skies, some early morning wind that passed by, morning temperatures in the low 70s, I would think.

My original plan was to track the sun in the Mak, and get a nice view of the sun being eaten by the moon, Pacman style, as the eclipse progressed.  Then, once totality hit, I was going to pull off the solar filter and look at the corona in detail at 48x through the Mak.  I was going to use a countdown timer I had downloaded to my phone to make sure that I didn’t get enraptured by the view, linger too long at the eyepiece, past totality, and burn my retinas off as the sun came back into view.

One problem with this plan was that there was about a 50/50 chance that when I pulled the filter off, I’d move the tube out of position so that I could no longer see anything.  (The solar filter fits onto the end of the tube nice and snugly, so it requires a bit of wiggling and force to pull it off.)  I decided that if I did move the tube, I wouldn’t try to find the sun again, because it would just waste precious time that I could be viewing totality instead.

A week or so before the eclipse, I advertised this plan on a couple of Facebook astronomy pages.  One page was convinced that I was going to blind myself, and was calling dibs on who would get my astrogear afterwards.  The other page was a bit more thoughtful than that, and got in touch with Fred Espenak, Mr. Eclipse himself.  He assured me that there was no problem with this plan.  Well, other than that part about lingering too long and burning my eyeballs.  Other than that one small little detail.

However, as I thought some more about this, I remembered that the corona was going to extend at least half a degree on either side of the half-degree wide sun – meaning that the sun and the corona together would certainly be over 1.5 degrees wide – too wide for the 1.1 degree FOV of the Mak.  I instead decided that I would use my ES 68 24mm in the ST-80, giving me almost 4.1 degrees FOV.  I would pull the front dust cap off of the ‘frac at totality – which was much easier to do without moving the scope, because it fits on looser.  Also, the stupid freeware countdown timer refused to work twice in a row, going blank on the second attempt.

The morning of, I packed up my tent and things nice and early to be ready to move out once the eclipse was “over” just after totality.  I had a rental car that I had to get back to Denver by 7pm, so I figured 6 hours of driving time would be more than enough.  More on this below, under the header “Traffic”.


The eclipse itself

The eclipse started promptly on time, heh heh.  It seemed like I was the first one to call out “First Contact!”, but that’s probably just my ego talking.  It was amazing to see how quickly the little bite grew and grew across the face of the sun.

As the moon covered more and more of the sun, I went around showing people my colander.  (I was supposedly there to do outreach, after all.  Ahem.)  Well, not my colander, exactly, but what my colander could do – the hundreds of holes acted like hundreds of pinhole cameras.  Each hole projected a little crescent sun.  Interestingly, someone with a colander with even larger holes was able to have even larger crescents.

Look closely at the “dots” in the center – they’re hundreds of little crescents.

The guy two scopes down from me also showed us a neat little trick – he took a regular, flat, hand mirror and projected the reflected solar crescent onto his car from a good hundred feet away:

A solar Prius.

As you can see, there were no trees in this area – these are the Great Plains, after all – but there were some down by the reservoir.  I was able to get my own tree leaves crescent photo:

Note the crescents, more on the right side.

As the percent hit about 70% or so, the sky definitely started looking darker.  As it got past 80% or so, the light took on an unusual cast.  This is because as it was being covered up, the sun was being reduced to almost a point source, and the shadows were getting sharper.  Yes, having light coming from a source even as small as the sun’s half a degree wide is too wide to be considered a point source.

There weren’t any animals to hear getting ready for bed, or any streetlights turning themselves on, but the temperature did drop noticeably as more of the sun was covered.


Totality!

Just before totality, probably at about 98%, someone called out that Venus was visible to the sun’s right.  And there she was – shining brightly and easily seen.  Someone else yelled that the shadow was approaching – and looking over, the sky was gray in that area.  I didn’t see the snakes on my white towel, but I’ve heard that those are very iffy to see anyway.  My non-counterfeit solar eclipse glasses showed just a tiny sliver of sun left.

As totality occurred, the crowd gasped audibly.  I ripped off the glasses and saw that black hole sun with a 360-degree sunset.

full sky eclipse
Sunset all around!

I didn’t spend time looking for Mars or Mercury or any of the bright stars that came out with the darkness.  I took a quick look at the corona with my 12×60 binoculars, and then pulled the dust cover off of the ST-80.  The view was simply glorious.  This picture approximates what I saw:

corona
Corona! And at the extreme lower right, that little dot is the star Regulus.  Credit: AllScapes Photography (Peter Young).  Taken in Van Tassell, WY.

But the picture doesn’t really do it justice.  The reason is because the human eye has a greater dynamic range than a camera.  This means that simultaneously with seeing the corona, the human eye can also see the prominences shooting off the limb, seen here:

Image may contain: night and sky
Prominences!  Three groups of them, at 9:45, 11:15, and 1:15.  Credit:  David Grider.  Taken in Pavillion, WY.

In the photo of the corona, the prominences are overexposed – to get the faint corona, you need a longer exposure, and the prominences get drowned out.  In the photo of the prominences, the corona is underexposed, and much smaller – the exposure time is shorter to catch the bright prominences.  But with my eyes, I saw both of these at the same time – and Regulus off to the right.  So, visually, it’s as if you can see the two photos combined simultaneously – and it’s much, much better.

The view through my ST-80 was astounding at 17x.  And all too short.  I gaped at the corona through it for about a minute or so, and then thought about the safety of my eyes.  I moved the scope off of the sun and went back to just looking up.

In two minutes and twenty-seven seconds, it was all over.  As the eclipse ended, I saw the diamond ring pop out with my naked eyes.  This is essentially the signal to put your eclipse glasses back on.  Totality was over, and the crowd broke out into applause and cheers.  The shadow, travelling across the earth’s surface at roughly 1600 miles per hour, had moved to the other side of the sky.  I had to pack up, and right quick, to get the hell outta Dodge before everyone else did.

Image may contain: night and sky
We liked it, so we put a diamond ring on it!  Credit:  Angeline Crawford.  Taken in Clarksville, TN.  (Obviously, this was after they took the last train there.)

However, of all the views I saw, this is the view that will stick with me – that black, black circle surrounded by a burning ring of fire, the blazing corona, in the middle of a deep blue sky.


Traffic

Not to put even the slightest damper on the eclipse itself, but I do feel it necessary to at least mention the worst traffic jam I’d ever been in in my entire life.  While it took only about 2h45m to get up to Glendo (Wyoming has an 80 mph speed limit – hooray!); it took over ELEVEN HOURS to get home, and I left within 15 minutes of third contact.  I had rented a car, and I had to return it by 7pm.  Well, after being stuck in traffic inside the park for a couple of hours, I resigned myself to having to spend the money to rent the car for another day.  Noooo waaaaay was 7pm happening.  

I was actually very surprised at the incredible civility of the traffic.  We were all stuck in Glendo itself for 3 hours, absolutely not moving.  I was turning off my car for 5 minutes at a time, just to start it up again and move 400 feet.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  No one was angry, no one was honking, no one was cutting anyone off.  People were getting out of their cars, walking around on the road, hiking up and down the little hills on the sides of the road.  Or if they couldn’t get out of their cars, they were putting their feet up on their dashboard, leaning their seats back, and taking it easy.  I even saw one woman going from car to car doing magic tricks just to entertain people while we waited!

Take a look at the center of the photo.  That’s traffic, stopped dead, wrapping up that hill, at least a half mile away.  If you look at the trees lining the summit of the hill, the thing on the extreme right of that line is a bus that’s reached the top, also stopped dead.

And when I finally reached it, it was the same thing on I-25 going south.  It took another 3 hours to get just 10 miles south of Glendo – where the much needed first rest area was “closed”.  After sitting in the car for 6 hours, it was much, much needed.  Ahem.  And still, no impatient drivers; we were all in the same boat together and there was simply nothing to be done.  I saw no obnoxious driving behavior from anyone the whole eleven-hour ride home.  And I didn’t even mind the traffic – much.  Well, if I did, all I had to do was think back to the eclipse, and it made it all worth while.  In watching the local news coverage, it seems like most people being interviewed about it felt the same way, too.

I was also quite surprised that I saw only one accident during the entire way back.  This was at about 9:00, after we had already been on the road for almost 9 hours.  People do get tired after a drive like that, so that’s understandable.  But all those people and just one accident?  That’s pretty amazing.  Especially when the news is reporting a 700% increase in traffic in Wyoming over the same time last year.  Yikes!

Even with all the traffic, and the extra day’s rental fees (bringing my total eclipse cost up to about $700), I would gladly do it all again.  It was worth every hour in traffic and every penny spent, and then some.  The 2024 eclipse is just over 6 1/2 years away – I can’t wait!

 

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2 thoughts on “August 23, 2017: The GREAT American Eclipse!

  1. Great report! Sorry to hear about the awful traffic after the eclipse. Glad you made it out okay, and that everyone was so civil.

    Possibly it’s just my combination of laptop, OS, and browser, but about half of the images in this post wouldn’t load for me. Something to check on, possibly.

    Like you, I can’t wait to do it again in a few years. It was amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

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